I love the idea (or, as we'll shortly see, ideas) of steampunk. The Victorian Era, only more wondrous. Why wouldn't I love it?
Well, mainly because the execution so seldom matches the concept.
I've been trying to read more steampunk, and the books I've come across fall mostly into a couple of disappointing categories. I'll talk about the third category, or what steampunk can be, in a bit.
Type One: The Big Brass Romance
The first type of steampunk is basically paranormal romance in something which is unconvincingly pretending to be the Victorian age, with characters who are very unconvincingly pretending to be English (since the author is American, and doesn't know much about England, or the English, or the Victorian Era, or how to go about doing research, or for that matter how to use a comma). There are probably airships and/or automatons. There is certainly a Plucky Gel, with nonfunctional brass gears glued to her corset, who is simultaneously too awesome to fail and too stupid to live.
There is a Love Interest, or quite likely a Love Triangle. The Love Interest, or the ultimately successful male member of the Love Triangle, is a horrible human being with big muscles. The Plucky Gel at first tries to resist him, because she thinks he's wrong for her (which shows atypical insight on her part), but ends up with him anyway after he's rescued her a couple of times.
The text is full of homonym errors. Full. It is written by a woman who failed Feminism 101, and probably English Composition 101 as well.
Type Two: The Steampulp Adventure
The second type of steampunk is a 1930s pulp in a bad Jules Verne costume. It is also poorly researched, and unconvincing in its Britishness and Victorianness, but the setting is so sketchy it doesn't matter so much. There are still probably airships and/or automatons, though they may be more central to the plot than they are in the Big Brass Romance. There is quite likely still a Plucky Gel, but she's disguised as a boy or does boy things in defiance of convention, and she, or someone, has nonfunctional brass goggles attached to her top hat.
There is a Big Bad, and there are chases, and explosions, and prison breaks, but not really enough of them to hide the fact that the author can't write very well and is kind of winging it. The Big Bad is trying to overturn the status quo, and the hero must prevent this.
This text, too, is probably well equipped with homonym errors. It is written by a man, who has taken Feminism 101 (and Postcolonial Literature) into the back room, tied them up and shot them.
Type Three: The Voyage of Imagination
The third type of steampunk is the type I like, and can't find enough of. Interestingly, hardly any of the examples I've found are set in the Victorian Era, and about half are in a secondary world. It's a world where, at a generally Victorian level of technology and society, there are airships and/or automatons or other such contraptions, and this actually makes a difference to how people live.
Indeed, society is in transition, and questions of equality, of access to power, education and technology, are central to the story. Sometimes it's about gender, sometimes about class or even race; often it's more than one of the above, and these questions are personally important to the heroes.
The writing is competent. If it's set in the real world, the author manages to demonstrate that they've been to the well of research, without making you drink from the bucket.
There may well be explosions and/or romance, but they're not the main focus. That would be the characters.
So, what are some examples of good steampunk? Besides the indie steampunk novels that I recommend, there's one trad-pub series I think highly of, even though it's a bit Type 2 (it's really well-done Type 2, what Type 2 should aspire to be). I'm referring to the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld. Yes, it's YA, and yes, the heroine is disguised as a boy, but it's good stuff all the same. It's not Victorian, but an alternate World War I, and technically it's dieselpunk.
I wish people would write more Type 3 steampunk, though. Get on that, would you?